For many including this reviewer, the cast will be the main draw, and the five principal actors are no less than good, with Burstyn particularly going the extra mile (in more ways than one), delivering an Oscar-caliber performance in a movie that teeters on the brink of trashiness. Incredibly, it's an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 1974 novel set in Detroit, 52 Pick-Up, though the fidelity to the source material is as slight as Burstyn's character's fidelity to her husband in the movie. Indeed, Cannon turned around and made another film of 52 Pick-up, under that title, just two years later.
Regardless, The Ambassador has enough good-interesting-surprising material in it to make for a memorable night at the movies, even if it's all but guaranteed to leave one nonplussed.
The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Peter hacker (Robert Mitchum) has set up a clandestine meeting with representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) against the advice of Frank Stevenson (Rock Hudson), his head of security. However, other Arabs from the Syria-based terrorist organization SAIKA fire upon both parties, and moments later the Israeli Army moves in, killing many PLO as well as the other, more extremist Arabs, who oppose any peaceful dialogue.
Meanwhile, Alex (Ellen Burstyn), the Ambassador's lonely wife, has been having an affair with handsome Arab antiques dealer Mustapha Hashimi (Fabio Testi), she unaware that he's one of the shining stars of the PLO. While they engage in a little afternoon delight, unknown agents secretly film them.
(Wikipedia says they are videotaped but that's incorrect. Unbelievably they are photographed with 35mm cameras and later short 35mm spools are shown. When the footage they shot is screened, it's complete with close-ups, hand-held shots and cuts that contradict the single lens hidden in a bookshelf the audience had seen earlier.)
At a diplomatic affair a drunk Alex, frustrated by her husband's inattentiveness, hops into a taxi bound for Jerusalem where she plans to meet with Mustapha. However, while calling him from a phone booth a bomb explodes inside his adjacent apartment and she's seriously injured.
Meanwhile, Hacker receives a phone call threatening to have the sex film broadcast throughout the world unless Hacker ponies up $1 million. Though Hacker was unaware of his wife's current lover, he's forgiving, knowing that his commitment to bringing peace to the Middle East has come at the expense of his relationship with Alex.
Wishing to avoid a scandal, Stevenson, already conspiring to have Hacker removed from office, urges the diplomat to accept government funds to pay off the blackmailers. But who are they? The PLO? The Israelis? Stevenson himself?
The Blu-ray includes both the U.S. release and international trailers, and boy howdy are they illustrative. The U.S. trailer markets The Ambassador as typical Cannon exploitation fodder. "His career is in jeopardy! His marriage is in ruins! And his life is in danger! He's through negotiating!" screamed the ads. In the film, Hacker never actually stops negotiating, even after witnessing a horrific ambush by Arab extremists (quite shocking, this) that wipes out several hundred students and nearly Hacker, too.
The international trailer more accurately sells the picture, while still emphasizing the action, violence, and sex.
The sex angle is genuinely startling. Burstyn was 51 at the time and still attractive, but her casual disrobing early in the story and sex scenes with Testi if nothing demonstrate her commitment to her part. Fifteen years Mitchum's junior, the two make a believably lived-in couple that have been through years of ups and downs, but who also clearly love one another as long-married couples often do. She's so good it's almost as if a movie like The Ambassador is undeserving of such a nuanced, dedicated performance.
Similarly, in a way only an actor like Mitchum could have pulled off, Hacker is a man so plain-speaking, effortlessly brave, and earnest to offset what appears to everyone else as foolhardy naiveté. An actor like John Wayne would have sold the symbolism of a peace agreement; Mitchum sells it as a practical idea that would end a lot of senseless violence.
Rock Hudson was, reportedly, a last-minute replacement for Telly Savalas, which may in part account for Hudson accepting his first supporting role in a movie in more than 30 years. Already showing the effects of AIDS while recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, he looks a bit drawn and suddenly aged but otherwise hides his illness well. Not long after a public appearance by a frail, nearly unrecognizable Hudson with frequent co-star Doris Day shock the world and less than a year after the release of The Ambassador Hudson would be dead.
Video & Audio
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray (touting a new logo), licensed from MGM, looks great in its 1.85:1 widescreen, almost like a new movie. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio (mono) is reasonably strong, and the disc is region "A" encoded, with no subtitle options.
Supplements include the aforementioned trailers, plus an audio commentary by editor Mark Goldblatt and film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson.
Viewers expecting something akin to Cannon's later The Delta Force will be surprised by The Ambassador's unexpected mix of Cannon-flavored violent action with, by Cannon's standards, serious drama about a late-middle aged couple and their complex relationship, and his heartfelt efforts to solve seemingly unresolvable, ages-old conflicts with old-fashioned reasonableness. An odd film to be sure, but Recommended.